Barriers to Change: Politics

Influence is part of leading—and if you don’t do it, others will.

Let’s be real: “politics” is an inevitable part of making change within organizations. You might wish that it wasn’t; that the “best idea” would win without campaigning; or that you and your team could focus on “the real work.” But like it or not, influence, and convincing people to do what you want, is part of leading—and if you don’t do it, others will. If anything, politics is even more important to consider in modern organizations because hierarchy is less important—you can’t just give an order from the top and expect it will be carried out. More people have influence on decisions and want to be involved in shaping the change. 

Like it or not, influence, and convincing people to do what you want, is part of leading—and if you don’t do it, others will.

Still, “politics” often has a bad reputation, and for good reason: when leaders put their own self-interest over that of the organization, it can lead to dysfunction and toxic work environments. But it doesn’t have to be this way: you can put your talents to work for the benefit of the organization and the teams you work with. In fact, many of the things leaders already do—crafting and sharing a compelling vision for change; negotiating with others to get resources to support the change; supporting (and, if necessary, correcting) behaviors—are all arguably political activities. The difference comes from what you’re trying to achieve, and the behavior you use to get there.

Despite the arguable necessity of politics, people are still hesitant to engage because:

  • They’re concerned about ethics. Given politics’ negative connotations, people believe that many of the activities associated with politics—ingratiating yourself with others, controlling the flow of information—are unethical. They aren’t willing to compromise their personal ethics, and so do their best to avoid politics entirely, concentrating on “the work” in the belief that results will speak for themselves.
  • They don’t like confrontation. Debating with someone or asking for favors can feel uncomfortable—their response is out of the petitioner’s control, and may feel like a personal attack.
  • They’re worried about retribution. When confronting a powerful leader in the organization, someone might lose (and not just the case for change). Antagonists may complain to other executives, or rally their own allies, resulting in the change leader losing standing or power within the organization. They might get a reputation for being “difficult,” and become unliked or unpopular, which will impact their ability to make change.

If you want to win in politics and do it ethically, consider the following:

  • Figure out what’s in it for others. People are more open to negotiating when they get something out of it. It doesn’t have to be directly related to the change, either—they might want a favor from you that they can call in later, or like the idea of building stronger relationships with others in the organization, or just some old-fashioned sucking up. This may require 1:1s to determine what, exactly, would bring them on board.
  • Reach out to allies. Forming a coalition for change may convince skeptics to change their mind—after all, if everyone else thinks it’s a good idea, maybe it really is. At the same time, check in with your network to determine if there are any factions forming to oppose the changes you’re making. The sooner you’re aware of resistance, the faster you can address it.
  • Do the work for them. Sometimes it’s not enough to welcome someone’s participation in a change—you have to direct them more strongly, such as by writing a set of recommendations, but letting them get the credit. Use your best judgment: you don’t want to make this a habit, but if a simple favor can ingratiate you with a key stakeholder, it’s likely worth it. 
  • Minimize their participation. Alternately, some people are best kept at arm’s length, simply because they will never be on board in the way you need them to. Remember, change happens largely through supporting champions, not by winning over detractors. Ask yourself: “how can I reduce or eliminate someone’s influence, or simply give them an “out”?
  • Get leverage. You may have to enact rewards and punishments to get people to go along with your goals—remembering that rewards, if well-tuned to people’s desires, are much more effective. And if you’re dealing with truly negative behaviors, you may need to assert some power through more traditional avenues, like rank. Tread carefully so you don’t become the enforcer of hierarchy.
  • Determine the narrative. The success or failure of change often comes down to how it’s interpreted—was this a bold but necessary risk that modernized the organization, or a foolish gamble that wasted teams’ time and energy? Think through how to tell the story of change, test it with your audiences to make sure it resonates, and repeat and adapt it over time.
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Barriers to Change: Politics
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